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Cantata BWV 181
Leichtgesinnte Flattergeister
Discussions - Part 1

Discussions in the Week of February 27, 2000 (1st round)

Aryeh Oron wrote (February 27, 2000):

This is the week of cantata BWV 181, according to Marie Jensen's suggestion. And it is an opportunity for all of us to listen to and to investigate one of the least familiar cantatas.

Michael Jordan, the famous retired basketball player, said once after a very successful game during which he shot almost 50 points: “I did not forced myself on the game. I let the game come to me”. With most of Bach’s music, I do not have to force myself to get to it, I let the music come to me. Most of it is irresistible, in the first hearing as well as after dozens of times. But BWV 181 is a rare exception, which proves the rule. I have to admit that this cantata did not come to me easily. Before this week, I knew it only by overhearing. I cannot say that I have paid to it too much attention. But during the last week I have listened several times to each of the 2 recordings of BWV 181 I have, trying to get hold of something. I have read the cantata text over and over again, trying to understand the meaning of the words and their relation to the music. And then, all of a sudden, I got the key (for me) to the understanding of this cantata. It was not intended to be charming or attractive or even pleasant in any way. What inspiration to attractive music can come out of the words: ‘Those by the wayside are they that hear; then cometh the devil and taketh away the word out of their hearts lest they should believe and be saved.’ (From the opening Aria for Bass), or ‘The Dangerous thorns’ countless number, the cares of desire, the treasures to multiply, will nourish the fire of hellish torment in eternity (From the Aria for Tenor (Mvt. 3)). Bach succeeds here, as usual, in giving descriptive musical meaning to the text, but most of the music does not rise to heights.

Final Chorus

After so many hearings of BWV 181, I came to conclusion that for me the pick of this cantata comes in the final movement, where a lengthy, contrapuntal and rich Chorus replaces the usual Choral. It is not really related to the previous movements and the things that I wrote about them do not apply to the final Chorus. It is almost tempting to listen to this movement as a separate piece of music. However, in a certain way this movement fulfills a need of releasing us from the drastic, sadistic and unpleasant moments we have experienced in this cantata before.

Mvt. 5 Chorus
“Laß, Höchster, uns zu allen Zeiten des Herzens Trost, dein heilig Wort” (“Grant, Highest, to us all times the heart’s comfort, Thy holy word”)
SATB, Trumpet, Flute, Oboe, 2 Violins, Viola, Continuo.

I tend to agree with Simon Crouch, who wrote in his Cantatas Pages:
"A final recitative leads into the jewel of this cantata: A glorious final movement Chorus that surely must have been parodied (or plain copied) from a far greater (lost) work. It's one of those pieces that when you hear it, you're sure that you've heard it before but you can't remember where. If you've not heard it, please make an effort to do so. You won't be disappointed!"

The description of this Chorus in Whittaker’s book is so clear that I believe that even those of us who do not read music can easily follow. It starts:
"The Chorus is reserved till the final number, in which a trumpet is added to the orchestra. For 5 bars unison flute, oboe, and violin I pursue a semiquaver run, the tromba is independent, the Continuo announces a syncopated octave figure, the other strings merely fill in. At bar 6 the trumpet takes up the semiquavers, in a different manner, and flute, oboe, and violin I trill a sustained note. The Chorus begins with a prayer for the Holy word at all times as consolation. Sopranos and Tenors lead off with a dual theme, the lower subject expressing perpetual faith in the continual fulfillment of the prayer… When Altos and Basses take these up, Tenors and Sopranos borrow the tromba semiquavers and the held note from bars 6 and 7. A turn-like figure, ascending in sequence… comes in all voices by the way of episode. So far the Chorus has been accompanied by Continuo only. We have now 4 blocks of the dual idea, always accompanied by the 2 counter-subjects, and these blocks are separated by ‘Herzens Trost’ theme, with bassi only. It is characteristic of Bach’s methods that the 5 entries of the 4 combined themes are always grouped differently, and that the 4 ‘Herzens Trost’ episodes show different orders of entries. The introduction is repeated to lead to the FINE pause." (And it goes on).

Review of the Recordings

See: Cantata BWV 181 - Recordings.

The 2 performances of BWV 181 I have listened to (in chronological order) are:

(1) Helmuth Rilling (1983; Final Chorus: 5:02)
This is a large-scale performance. The singing of the Chorus is very warm, but the conducting is too rounded. The instruments are modern, but they flow with the music. The Continuo is too prominent, as happens with Rilling performances from time to time, but I can live with it, because usually I got the compensations from other factors of the performance (Vocal soloists, interpretation, etc.). Don’t get me wrong, I like this performance. But when I am listening to this recording, with Whittaker’s guidelines, I get confused, because it is difficult for me to follow. Rilling is doing it in his way, and his extrovert way in this Chorus is full of joy, jollity and juice.

(2) Gustav Leonhardt (1988; Final Chorus: 5:26)
Relatively to the previous performance, this one is on smaller-scale. Through Leonhardt’s performance, with the combined Chorus of Hannover and Gent (something that I learnt from previous postings to this group), one can hear and follow every detail described by Whittaker. This singing of every voice of this marvelous Chorus, the playing of the old instruments, the sensitive accompaniment of the Continuo and the precise conducting of Leonhardt – all contribute a very clear and high spirited performance of this movement. The feelings here are more restrained, but overall the performance is not less effective than the previous one.

My conclusion is that both performances are convincing in their own terms. For such performances it is worth to wait for and to pass all the previous movements. My impression after listening to these performances is that the internal force of the final Chorus even strengthens when you hear it at the end of the cantata, as Bach intended, and not as a separate piece of music.

And as always, I would like to hear other opinions, regarding the above mentioned performances, or other recordings.

Billy Kitson wrote (February 28, 2000):
[To Aryeh Oron] These are very good! You are worth more money!

Kirk McElhearn wrote (February 29, 2000):
[To Aryeh Oron] Yes! I just put this on, and I agree with what you are saying. It does sound grand and familiar. It is a beautiful Chorus.

Marie Jensen wrote (February 28, 2000):
(1) Cantata BWV 181 "Leichtgesinnte Flattergeister". Rilling version

I don't know why the Danish radio Sunday the 27th February broadcasted "Jauchzet Frohlocket, Auf preiset die Tage" the first cantata of BWV 248 along with cantata BWV 188 for the 21 Sunday in Trinity.

But "Gib dich zufrieden und sei stille". A Cantata is a Cantata. And I thank for every Bach initiative!

But listening to the problems the Kuijken trumpeters had with hitting the notes, made me think: What a luck we have good old Rilling [1], non-HIP and with vibrating soloists, but with such great trumpeters. How do I learn to accept HIP brass? HIP is great for me, as long it doesn't involve brass and immature boy Sopranos!

In the final Chorus of this week’s cantata we hear this fine trumpet sound. It's a really great Chorus Bach has made here. Some times I go a little far with my hommade, first experience, unscholared Bach associations. But shake your heads. Right now I have to take the chance and tell:

This Sunday the sermon was about Marc 4.26-32, where the tiny seed is put into the ground, and a huge tree grows up, where birds can make their nests. Placing such a large scaled movement in the end of the cantata is for me a symbol of this big tree. The seed has survived "Belial und seine Kindern" and is ending well founded, huge and safe with triumphing trumpeters standing in its shadow .The text also tells about this "Fruchtbarheit":

Du kannst nach deiner Allmachtshand
Allein ein fruchtbar gutes Land
In unsern Herzen zubereiten.

I only know the cantata in Rilling’s version and I like it.

Ryan Michero wrote (March 1, 2000):
Poor BWV 181. There are just too many wonderful cantatas for this one to stand out from the 200+ pack. It is certainly not a bad piece of music. In fact, I believe it contains some really fine elements and is overall better than previous comments on this list might suggest. I think its damning flaw is not the fault of Bach but of the ravages of time: the obbligato accompaniment of the Tenor Aria has been lost. Hence, musical interest drops right in the middle of the piece, making the whole work seems less coherent and dramatically powerful than it might have been at one time. What remains, though, is wonderful and should not be overlooked.

My favorite movement of this cantata, in contrast to Simon Crouch, Marie, and Aryeh, is the opening Bass Aria (Mvt. 1). I think this has to do with Bach's wonderful melodic invention and with a pictorial association, especially vivid to me, that would make Marie proud.

The Gospel reading of the day (according to my Oxford J.S. Bach Companion, ed. Malcolm Boyd) is Luke 8: 4-15, telling the parable of the sower. "The 'frivolous, fickle people' of the opening Bass Aria (Mvt. 1) are the 'fowls of the air' that devour the seed that 'fell by the wayside.'" Hence, the seeds are used for selfish means and cannot grow--God's words cannot take root. Boyd says, "[The frivolous, fickle people] are suggested in the music by the fleeting tempo (Vivace), the fragmented melodic line, the staccato articulation, and the frequent trills. The structure, too, is somewhat capricious. What promises to be a modified da capo repeat of the first section loses its way after four bars and is transformed into a modified repeat of the second section (B). This is one of the relatively few cantatas of which the original libretto has survived, and it is obvious from this that it was Bach, not his poet, who was responsible for the Aria's unusual, possibly unique, structure."

The imagery of the text of this cantata sparked a gruesome, surreal memory for me. Each winter I go to the coast of Texas, bordering the Gulf of Mexico, to hunt ducks at a private hunting club. We leave to hunt every day from a pier that extends off the beach, and on the side of that pier near the end is a small, covered area where the club's employees clean the ducks shot by the hunters. Cleaning the ducks entails chopping off their heads, plucking off their feathers with a plucking machine, and cutting them open and removing most of their guts. When the workers are done with each duck, they throw the remaining waste into the water off the side of the pier. The workers arrive at the same time every day at about 11:30 A.M. to clean the day's ducks. Shortly before then, the seagulls start to gather, perching on top of the electrical lines and other broken-down piers close to the cleaning area. As the workers throw the guts over the side of the pier, the gulls dive down and grab them out of the water, flying around with their bloody trophies on display, gobbling them down then squawking for more. Often they dart around each other, trying to grab the entrails hanging out of the other birds' beaks. It's strangely disturbing to see these lovely, graceful white birds with bloody duck guts hanging out of their mouth, eating the dead like vultures but without even the simple camaraderie of that most disgusting breed of bird. These lovely gulls, symbols of contentment and reverie in countless works of art, suddenly seem ugly, greedy, and demonic. It's a frightening sight.

Or maybe I've just seen Hitchcock's THE BIRDS one too many times...

Nevertheless, I can picture these birds of Belial darting around when I hear the diving, lurching, leaping, trilling melody of "Leichtgesinnte Flattergeister." It has one really strange syncopation in the melody that took me a few listens to learn. Try to anticipate the notes of the string melody along with your recording--and notice how the rhythm trips up in the third bar. Also, it sounds like the melody is going land on the tonic note and end somewhere in the seventh bar--until Bach surprises us with a much more satisfying little cadential flourish. Wonderful!

As far as performances go, I have the recordings led by Gustav Leonhardt on Teldec [2] and Ton Koopman on Erato (Vol. 7) [3]. I am spoiled by their performances of the first Aria—both Koopman’s version with Klaus Mertens and Leonhardt’s version with Max van Egmond are absolutely wonderful. They are excellently sung and played and I cannot choose one over the other.

Since I love the opening Aria, it's too bad the Tenor Aria drags down the coherence of the cantata. Here's what my Bach guide says about this number: "It is obvious from its melodically inactive opening ritornello that the Tenor Aria 'Der schadlichen Dornen' was originally accompanied by at least one instrument whose part has been lost; only the continuo Bass has survived." The author of the notes to the Teldec complete cantata series (Nele Anders) seems to think this was a violin part, and this assumption is relayed on Simon Crouch's Cantata page. Koopman apparently disagrees, as he has reconstructed the melody part himself, assigning it to a solo oboe. Interestingly, Leonhardt, in spite of the liner notes that accompany his recording, instead chooses to play his own reconstruction of the solo melody on the organ. The differences between the two versions are striking-Koopman's is sullen and plaintive with longer note values while Leonhardt's is more energetic and virtuosic. Koopman's imitates the shape of the vocal melody while Leonhardt prefers faster figuration that more closely follows the harmonic changes of the continuo. Koopman's provides contrast and respite from the mood of the first Aria while Leonhardt's sustains the established tension. Gerd Türk sings lyrically for Koopman while Kurt Equiluz seems breathless and nervous for Leonhardt. Both are fascinating conjectures, but even the best efforts of Koopman and Leonhardt can't make this a really memorable Aria.

The excellent final Chorus has been commented on extensively here, so I'll only cover the performances. Leonhardt's version is the more traditional, his fine choir singing with great clarity and excitement in Bach's counterpoint. He lets Soprano and Alto soloists alone sing the central section of the Chorus, putting into action Bach's distinction between "concertists" and "ripienists". Perhaps it's not what HIP performers would do today, but it does work musically to provide contrast with the more jubilant outer sections. The trumpet playing, surprisingly, is excellent (not often the case for brass-playing in the Teldec recordings), to my ears more assured and/ energetic than the playing in the Koopman version--natural trumpeting at its finest. The liner notes of the Bach 2000 series aren't specific regarding instrumental soloists--can anyone tell me the name of the trumpeter here?

Koopman's departs from his usual style in his performance of the final Chorus, letting his vocal soloists sing the choral lines alone throughout. Koopman has been a vocal opponent of the one-per-part principle in performing Bach's Leipzig cantatas, so what's going on here? Musicology aside, K's performance is great with excellent ensemble singing by his soloists (Gerd Türk, of course, is a member of the one-per-part specialist group Cantus Cölln). The swing in Koopman's rhythm here makes up for slightly less impressive trumpet playing.

Overall, BWV 181 is a cantata that repays careful listening, and I think it is a better work than it appears to be at first listen. Anyone without BWV 181 in their collection can't go wrong with the versions of either Koopman [3] or Leonhardt [2].

Johan van Veen wrote (March 1, 2000):
(2) According to my edition (the yellow one, with 6 CDs per set) there are three trumpet players in his ensemble: Friedemann Immer, Klaus Osterloh and Susan Williams. I think that these last two are only playing when more than one trumpet is needed, so it is safe to assume that Friedemann Immer is the soloist in BWV 181. Your description fully corresponds to his qualities.

Ryan Michero wrote (March 1, 2000):
(2) [To Johan van Veen] Of course! I should have known it was Immer. Thanks Johan.

Jane Newble wrote (March 1, 2000):
I knew I should have ordered Koopman Vol. 7 (3) before now! As it is, I'm sitting here, without any version of BWV 181, reading all the comments, and getting more and more curious! But I shall save these e-mails, so that I can read them again, when I have finally got it.


Continue on Part 2

Cantata BWV 181: Details & Complete Recordings
Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4

Recordings & Discussions of Cantatas: Main Page | Cantatas BWV 1-50 | Cantatas BWV 51-100 | Cantatas BWV 101-150 | Cantatas BWV 151-200 | Cantatas BWV 201-224 | Cantatas BWV Anh | Order of Discussion
Discussions of General Topics: Cantatas & Other Vocal Works | Performance Practice | Radio, Concerts, Festivals, Recordings


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